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John Feffer

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Serbia's Path to Europe

Posted: 01/18/2013 3:19 pm

Serbia this week adopted new guidelines for its talks with Kosovo. As usual, the Serbian parliament declared that it would never recognize the independence of the breakaway region. This was not a surprise. But the parliament also called for more autonomy for ethnic Serbians living in Kosovo.

On the face of it, this latter statement seems of a piece with the refusal to recognize Kosovo's independence. But it is actually quite the opposite, for it implies two things. First, Serbia no longer harbors any hopes of asserting direct control over Kosovo. Second, the guidelines indirectly recognize Pristina's sovereignty over the entire region of Kosovo. This acknowledgment runs counter to the hitherto popular "partition option" that would turn Kosovo into a kind of Korean peninsula, with a DMZ between the ethnic Albanian majority and the Serbian enclaves in the north.

This is a very delicate balance. The nationalist government currently in place in Belgrade does not want to go down in history for "selling out" Kosovo Serbs. On the other hand, they also don't want to go down in history for blowing Serbia's chance to join the European Union. Caught between unhappy bureaucrats in Brussels and unhappy compatriots in northern Kosovo, the Belgrade politicians are relying on a good deal of finesse: negotiating that which must be negotiated while kicking the rest down the road. Call it the Serbian version of "strategic ambiguity," the same kind of opacity that has allowed Washington to maintain relations with both Beijing and Taipei.

The European Union, too, is involved in a difficult game. Brussels knows that having half the Balkans inside the EU and half outside is not a tenable situation. On the other hand, the EU is struggling with an economic crisis, and there isn't a great deal of enthusiasm for further expansion after Croatia enters this summer. In fact, according to the head of Serbia's EU Integration Office, there won't be any new entrants in the next six to eight years, with the possible exception of Iceland. So, Serbia has to be both realistic about its chances and flexible in its conduct.

But for many in Serbia, the real question about EU integration is not the relationship with Pristina but what kind of state Serbia wants to be. Back in October, I talked with Srdjan Majstorovic, the deputy director of the EU Integration Office, about this issue.

"The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process," he explained,

Not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

What's quite surprising about all this is the level of support in Serbian society for the EU path -- despite the length of the accession process, the entrance requirements that the EU has demanded, and the less appealing prospects for EU members given the current financial crisis. Not only has the level of support in Serbian society for EU accession remained at around 50 percent, but the pro-EU faction in the Serbian parliament has now reached 90 percent. And, Majstorovic points out, most Serbians want to pursue internal reforms regardless of EU accession.

The question remains: how much "strategic ambiguity" will Brussels and Kosovo tolerate, and for how long?

The Interview

There's a perception that the current Serbian government has adopted a go-slow attitude toward European integration compared to the previous government. Would you agree with that?

I think it's still early to say whether this is true or not. It's still not the full 100 days of this government to assess properly what the dynamism of the EU reforms in Serbia will be. What is obvious is that the prime minister himself, as well as the first deputy prime minister and the deputy minister for EU integration, are all firm that the EU integration process is a primary goal of this government. I would stick to that and suggest holding them accountable to produce tangible results. But perhaps it is too early to assess what the dynamism of the process will be.

Mind you, this dynamism is not solely based on internal social, political and economic conditions. There is an external factor as well. Unfortunately, what's happening inside the EU and its economy is influencing not only European-wide political debate, it's also spilling over into the internal political debate here in Serbia. There are those saying, "Do you see what is happening inside the EU? Are we going to rush in or are we going to prepare ourselves better?"

Although political and economic issues are playing the most influential part our relations with the EU at this moment, we shouldn't neglect reforms that are necessary to undertake in the process of EU accession. They need to be implemented no matter the tempo of our EU integration process. The important thing is that the government does not lose its goal, which is the EU integration process. Then, in open dialogue with the EU and the European Commission, we can agree on the tempo of the EU accession process, respecting the objective circumstances on both sides. But this tempo of the EU accession process should not affect in any way the internal reforms, which need to be undertaken if Serbia wants to be recognized as a successful, democratic and modern European state.

In the media, it was presented as an expectation on the part of this government, or this government and previous government, that the discussion of EU integration and Kosovo would proceed in parallel. But in some sense, the two have collided. EU accession, it seems, has been made contingent on an acknowledgement or recognition of the independence of Kosovo. Is this the case? If so, how to resolve this?

First of all, it's very difficult to ask Serbia to recognize something that five other EU states don't recognize, namely Kosovo's independence. The European integration process for Serbia is, in a sense, a state-building process: not in the sense of building a Serbian state, which has existed for centuries, but in the sense of creating modern democratic institutions based on the rule of law that can sustain serious political pressure and threat within a democratic institutional setting. For that, we need to continue the EU integration process, because it is the most important transformative power tool in this region, and not only in Serbia. Our primary goal is to strengthen democratic institutions and make them capable of sustaining heavy and difficult political pressures. Only then can we hope for the sustainable resolution of still pending issues and the normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

The reality in Kosovo is rather complex. Institutions in Kosovo are ruling this administrative area. Serbia still relies on UNSC Resolution 1244 and deems the same area as being UN administrated. The reality is that Serbia does not have the instruments to rule the territory that is, in accordance with its constitution, part of the sovereign territory of the Republic of Serbia. Nor do Kosovo institutions, which declared independence in 2008, have the instruments to rule the northern part of Kosovo populated by Serbs. So, this is a potential jumping off point for negotiations between the two sides, and there is room here for some future compromise. Both sides can agree to disagree and explore possibilities to find some way out of the deadlock, which has grave consequences on the everyday life of people living in this area.

We need a compromise, because otherwise this situation can breed very bad sentiments on both sides and become a destabilizing factor. In this volatile social and economic situation, it can produce very negative effects. There is 45 percent unemployment in Kosovo, 90 percent of which are young people. This is a social time bomb. The situation in Serbia is just a bit better, with 25 percent unemployment and 80 percent being young people. If not offered a peaceful and constructive alternative, these young people could become susceptible to populism and nationalism and other volatile ideas and ideologies.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.

 

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